Over the past couple of years I’ve had an increasing number of emails from aspiring travel/documentary photographers from all over the world. The three most common questions I am usually asked go along the lines of:
Can you give me advice on how to become a travel photographer and how to make a living from it?
Can you look at my photos and tell me what you think, give me critique?
Can you share your story? Tell me how you got to where you are?
I take the fact that I’m being looked at as someone to ask those sorts of questions as a huge compliment, but at the same time, a lot of these emails frustrate me, a lot. They also take up quite a good bit of my time, when I really don’t have that much of it. But, I feel obligated to answer, to help how I can.
You see, when I was starting out, I too used to send out emails to various photographers whose work I liked and respected. Perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today, had it not been for the fact that about 70-80% of them actually replied. Some even called (on the phone) and gave me valuable bits of advice that helped me advance my career and improve as a shooter. In a sense I feel obliged to continue what they had going.
However, there is a big difference with some of the emails I get and those I used to send. The difference is that my emails were specific, but a lot of what I get is so general, so “airy-fairy”, see the questions above. This means that if I am to give a truly valuable piece of advice, I have to come up with some sort of a mini-essay. Sorry, I’m not that accomplished of a writer to pump these out regularly, along with all the other writing I do, not to mention the traveling. I need some time to live and to take photos myself.
In the future I’ll use this post as a reference point for anyone who sends me an email with the above mentioned questions.
How to become a travel photographer?
Most of the aspiring photographers that email me are still in the very early stages of their journey, if you belong to that category, then, before you think of anything else, see if anyone actually wants or cares about your photos.
How do you do this? Create a body of work. Start showing it to people, not to your mum and dad or your best friend, but people who are not afraid to hurt your feelings. Emailing photographers whose work you respect is one option, I’ll get to the specifics of how this should be done later. Another option that I keep mentioning in this blog and even in some of my eBooks is sending your photographs to sites like 1X.com. Not just the main section, but the critique section, to see what people think.
I should clarify before I finish with this point that by body of work I mean at least 50 or so images which are truly exceptional and worthwhile. It should take you about a couple of years to produce those. Please don’t expect anyone to take your work seriously if all you have in your portfolio are random snaps from family holidays or a bunch of images from your first “eye-opening” trip to India or Thailand or wherever.
How do I earn a living as a travel photographer?
There’s no simple answer. The industry is changing a lot and it’s changing quickly. I’d say that if you’re still in the process of accumulating that body of work, then chances are, by the time you finish, even more major changes will take place and at that stage any advice I give you will now be useless.
I don’t know all the answers either and I could say that making money with travel photography is difficult and blah, blah, blah, but you probably already heard that (or should have heard). I can only say what I’ve learnt from my observations and here they are:
Having an online presence has been the most important thing for my “career” as a travel, documentary photographer. These days it really seems that if you’re not online, you don’t exist. Simple as that. If you are, nothing is guaranteed, but at least you’re giving yourself a chance.
Getting published, getting into magazines is great, it feels wonderful to see our work in print, but don’t expect much from it as far as finances go. You could classify it as "making a living", but only in countries where you might be able to get around on $15-$25 a day.
Don’t expect to make a living solely from your travel photography for at least those couple of years that you are shooting your portfolio (or sometimes ever). I worked a whole lot of shitty jobs to fund my early trips. I shot weddings (which are very painful for me) an odd portrait here, a corporate job there. None of those things excited me, but they got me the cash to travel to where I wanted and allowed me to shoot what I wanted.
In short the rule is this: Make money any way you can, get yourself to the destination you so desperately want to photograph, shoot great photos there and then look for ways to get them out into the market place. I’ve mentioned the following before on this blog. At first you work for your photographs (and work damn hard for them) and then they start to work for you. But only if you get them out there.
Can you look at/critique my photos?
Firstly, let me mention that if you send me photos via email, I will be very pissed off. A lot of the time when I travel (which is most of the time) I have a really crappy internet connection and I have other priorities as far as email goes, no matter how wonderful your photos are. The exception is, if you want to ask a really specific question about no more than a couple of images. Just make sure to compress them and keep them at no more than 150kb each.
Also, be specific. If you have hundreds of photos on your Flickr account of friends, pets and random crap, I am not going to sort through all of that. How about this, you create a small gallery of no more than 10 of your very best images and send me a direct link to that? That will give me enough of an idea on where you’re at and I’ll give you some general thoughts on that work.
If you want me to be specific, be specific with your questions. Be specific about what image you want feedback on and no I won’t have the time to tell you what I think about each and every one of them.
Finally, don’t get angry or down on yourself if I don’t say something like “Wow! Great work!”. This is what your mum, dad and best friend are supposed tell you. I assume that if you’re asking for critique, you want an honest answer. Unless your work is really great (which is rare for those who are starting out) I’ll try to offer constructive criticism. But remember, it’s only my point of view, I might end up being a moron and you, a genius who sells their work for a million dollars one day. If you don’t want critique or my “ruthless” opinion, don’t ask me to look at your work.
What’s my story?
It’s still being written. :) But, if you’re really interested, you really just could have done some digging around on this blog. HERE is one post with a (similar title) where I talk about my own journey.
Whatever happened to being inquisitive? When I am interested in some photographer’s work, I google their name and I look for stuff on them on the internet. If you do a search for “Mitchell Kanashkevich interview” around the internets, you might just find answers to some of the questions you have.
Well, that’s about it, now feel free to contact me with whatever specific questions you might have. One "bonus tip" - if you plan to send any emails to magazine editors or anyone busy and short on time, you'd better make sure that you follow the rule of being specific and to the point, or your email will not have much chance of getting a reply.
I think it’s about time that I make some FAQ page too, that would save me a lot of time answering the “What lens did you use?” question. Hmm, it'll come.
P.S. When you get a response from me, it would be nice to acknowledge it. Like a "thank you I received your email" or something. I'm surprised how many people never do that, only to send me an email a month later, with another question. Not cool. If I've put in the effort to write something, it would be good to know if it's at least been reached the person asking the question.